* social constructionism
The role of theory in contemporary youth justice practice is crucial in shaping and conceptualising relationships between youth and crime. It provides a structure for how youth justice is practiced and helps make sense of today’s issues surrounding the topic. Approaches to youth justice have evolved throughout the centuries and it is important for youth justice practitioners to be aware of the evolution of theory in order to be up to date with their knowledge and in their practice. Knowledge of current as well as traditional theoretical perspectives helps provide a new direction on current as well as old questions; it helps with the understanding of how the justice system they work in has been shaped and informs new models of work in this field. This essay will attempt to compare and contrast three traditions of theorising on crime, law and order: classicism, positivism and social constructionism. A brief discussion of the relative influence of each perspective on contemporary theory and practice in youth justice will be included.
In the late 18th century, classical theorists, such as Beccaria and Bentham, proposed a model which would inform the rational actor model (Hopkins-Burke, p. 85-89, 2011). The idea was that individuals are rational beings and have free will with regards to their behaviour. Should someone choose to be involved in criminal activities, they should be held personally responsible for their behaviour and be punished accordingly. Crime, by its nature, is morally wrong and endangers social order, and therefore, should be punished. Offenders should be deterred of any potential re-offending and would-be criminals should be deterred from first time offending. This is achieved by having a justice system where punishment is automatic and proportional to the crime committed. The principle in place here is that the consequences of being involved in criminal activities are not worth the benefits of such an activity. The classicist perspective offered a framework for practicing justice however, it also had some flaws: all offenders had to be treated on the basis of the crime committed only, and were all treated as fully rational and responsible beings. This raised the issue of children and individuals with diminished intellectual faculties, and saw judges beginning to vary sentences depending on the offender and their circumstances. The emergence of the concept of due process and the consideration given to not only the crime committed, but also to the intention and state of mind of the perpetrator in determining whether the individual can be held responsible as a rational individual led to the need to consider the criminal and their crime in light of surrounding circumstances. This led to the emergence of the neo-classical school and the crucial thinking that predisposing factors may have an impact on an individual’s behaviour. The use of experts in courts increased and as a result of the identification of biological, psychological and social differences, sentences became individualised in order to not only take into account predisposing factors, but also the consequences and appropriateness of the punishment in terms of rehabilitation of the individual.
The limitations of classicism led to the emergence of a new trend in the 19th century which provided a long-lasting tradition (it was the approach of choice in the 20th century until the 1960’s). The positivist school offered a materialistic and scientific approach to crime. The principles were that natural sciences methods should be applied to the social world (Young, 1981). This new trend was in contradiction with classicism. Where classicism was about individuals being equal in society and using their free will to engage in criminal activities, the principle of positivism was that the source of...